The Myth of Multitasking

January 12, 2018 | Top priorities: Business owners, legislators weigh in on 2018 session Rowena Crosbie, President, Tero International,

Of all the beliefs people hold about millennials, the one touted as a great strength is their ability to multitask. Employers seem to covet this ability. After all, doing two things at once must be better than doing one thing, right? It seems so logical.

One of the most enduring myths around personal efficiency and time management is multitasking saves time. Evidence of the widespread belief in this myth comes from the more than six million webpages offering strategies about how to multitask.

But the research does not support this myth. Multitasking actually slows people down and leads to errors and increased stress.

In his book The One Thing, Gary Keller sites a 2009 study conducted by Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University, designed to determine what made for a great multitasker. The 262 test subjects were divided into two groups. One was made up of high multitaskers. The other was low multitaskers. The assumption was the multitaskers would outperform the other group.

Nass was wrong. It turned out the high multitaskers were outperformed on every measure. While they were all convinced they were great at doing two things at once, the research clearly showed they were lousy at it.

When you try to do two things at once, you either can’t do it or you won’t do either task as well. It is a recipe for losing efficiency and effectiveness. Why? Your brain is hardwired to focus on one thing at a time.

Does trying to read the news crawl at the bottom of the television screen while attending to the main program frustrate you? Do you get engaged in the interview and then catch a glimpse of “...dead at 21”? Do you spend the next 20 minutes trying to figure out who died?

But, can’t you walk and chew gum at the same time? Yes, but there’s no channel interference. Two different parts of the brain are used for those two activities. Walking and carrying on a conversation is a breeze on familiar terrain. If you were walking over treacherous terrain, the conversation would stop so you could concentrate. Similarly, you can drive your car while listening to music. Until you find yourself driving in a blinding storm, and then the noise is a distraction. The unconscious activity of driving becomes conscious because of the danger. You must focus.

Can we do two things at once? On the condition one of the things is habitual and unconsciously done (not requiring creative or cognitive thought).

Many of the things we try to do at the same time use the same part of the brain. For example, emailing and talking on the phone both use the communication center. When we try to do both activities at the same time, we miss something. When we try to read the scrolling updates at the bottom of the television screen while also listening to the interview, we miss something. When we’re working on an expense report and a colleague drops by to talk about a business problem, the relative complexity of those two tasks makes it difficult to jump back and forth. This takes a toll on productivity.

What do multitasking and interruptions cost? It depends on the complexity of the tasks. Researcher Dr. David Meyer reports the time lost can range from 25 percent on simple tasks to more than 100 percent on complex tasks.

Multitasking also takes a toll on relationships. When we attempt to listen to a loved one while also checking our device for messages, the other party realizes he or she doesn’t have our full attention, and the cost goes beyond lost efficiency—relationships also suffer.

All of us can quickly enjoy improvements in productivity, decreases in errors and reductions in stress by applying this insight to our lives.

When two activities demand your complete attention, choose one. The next time you find yourself reading an email while talking on the phone, checking your device in a meeting, completing a puzzle while interacting with your kids or reading PowerPoint slides while listening to a speaker, pause and remind yourself to focus on one task at a time.

Rowena Crosbie is president of Tero International, co-author of “Your Invisible Toolbox: The Technological Ups and Interpersonal Downs of the Millennial Generation” and co-host of the show “Your Invisible Toolbox.” Since 1993, Tero has earned a distinguished reputation as a premier research and corporate training company. Tero has been voted among the Best Training and Development Companies by readers of the Des Moines Business Record every year since the category was introduced in 2007.